The India Cable: Modi’s U-Turn on Biden, Bollywood Heard Today, Farmers Mostly Unheard

Plus: Vaccine for all far away, countdown to Bihar, the Bidens of Madras, and Lodhas sell London’s most expensive flat

From the founding editors of The Wire—MK Venu, Siddharth Varadarajan and Sidharth Bhatia—and journalists-writers Seema Chishti, Sushant Singh and Tanweer Alam. Editor: Pratik Kanjilal

Snapshot of the day
November 9, 2020

Pratik Kanjilal

The world has changed over the weekend, with the Democrats winning the White House. A poser that’s been in the air for months finally has an answer: if Trump digs in and refuses to leave his digs, he will be physically evicted by the Secret Service. Fox News changed its colours to call the election for Joe Biden, and let its keenest fan know that his lawsuits were baseless and useless. Scrambling to leave behind howdys and namastes, abki baar Delhi quickly expressed its relief at having a supporter of India-US relations in office in Washington. However, relations could be rocky because of the Modi government’s human rights track record. Meanwhile, in Bihar, after exit polls gave the state election to the RJD, Tejashwi Yadav, who turned 31 today, has laid down the line ― no fireworks, firing in the air, or vile behaviour, when the results are declared tomorrow.  

New Jersey, Arizona and Montana have legalised marijuana and across the border, Mexico is about to do so. In Mumbai, the Narcotics Control Bureau continued its “crackdown” on drugs, hived off from the Sushant Singh Rajput suicide case, by arresting the wife of producer Firoz Nadiadwala for possession. She was found with 10 grams of marijuana.  

While Biden and Harris have called for an end to the politics of demonisation, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has marked the anniversary of demonetisation, claiming that it had curbed black money. The consensus among economists is that he needs more reliable data. There have been fresh tensions on the Assam-Mizoram border as a blast damaged a school in Cachar. A court in Sri Lanka has permitted officials to destroy several Indian mechanised fishing boats seized in the last 3-4 years for allegedly crossing into the territorial waters of the island nation. 

Three militants and four security forces personnel, including an Army officer, were killed near the Line of Control in north Kashmir’s Kupwara district on Sunday. Abandoning its annual practice, the ITBP has decided this year not to move from its high-altitude posts, which are located in Uttarakhand on the China border at altitudes up to 16,000 feet, where temperatures plunge to -20 degrees Centigrade in winters. And there was no breakthrough in the eighth round of Corps Commander talks between India and China on Friday over the six-month-old Ladakh border crisis.

Republic TV owner and editor-in-chief Arnab Goswami, arrested for abetment of the suicide of architect Anvay Naik, was shifted to Taloja Jail after he was found using a cellphone to access social media while confined in the quarantine centre at Alibaug Jail. But the Bombay high court declined to release him. And in Delhi, a judge has granted bail to an accused in the Delhi ‘riots’ case by composing a verse: “Take your freedom from the cage you are in; / Till the trial is over, the state is reined in; / The State proclaims; to have the cake and eat it too; / The Court comes calling; / Before the cake is eaten, bake it too.” There’s more. The order just gives and gives:

A long shot

Echoing the prediction of WHO Chief Scientist Soumya Swaminathan in October, Dr Randeep Guleria, director of the All India Institute of Medical Sciences and a member of the national task force on coronavirus management, has said that common people will have to wait till 2022 for a shot of the coronavirus vaccine. The AIIMS director said it would take “more than a year” for a coronavirus vaccine to be easily available in the Indian market.

In an interview with CNN-News18, Guleria said that it would take “more than a year” to vaccinate healthy adults. “In our country, the population is large; we need time to see how the vaccine can be bought from the market like a flu vaccine, and taken. That will actually be the ideal situation.” Masks would remain in use even after shots were available. The AIIMS Director has absolutely no good news to offer. On a day that Delhi saw its highest single-day spike, in another interview he said; “if you are getting coronavirus now, then because of air pollutants you are breathing in, it can be more severe.”

Even if available, vaccine delivery would pose daunting challenges, requiring a cold chain which reliably maintains -70 to -80 degrees Centigrade, and the administrative exercise of targeting recipients at greatest risk. 

This week, Aligarh Muslim University Medical College starts Phase 3 Covaxin trials. India has shot past 8.5 million Covid cases, and is at third place in the world, with the US and France on number one and two respectively. 

The Long Cable

No more Trump: What’s good for India is not good for Modi

Siddharth Varadarajan

The night all major US television networks announced that Joe Biden would be the next president of the United States, the Ministry of External Affairs sent out a detailed but unofficial advisory on why this was actually good news for India. Less than a year ago, Narendra Modi had used the phrase ‘Ab ki baar Trump sarkar’ in what was seen as a clever, subliminal plug for a second Trump term. But now the MEA produced a dhobi list of all the ways the Democratic president-elect had been a great friend of India and noted that “Our Government and Prime Minister Modi had an excellent rapport” with the US when Biden was VP. 

To drive home the message, the MEA even opened up the Modi photo album.

That the Modi establishment was rooting for Donald Trump was well known – so well known that comedians have made fun of the prime minister now that his man has lost – yet the media in India largely went along with this pirouette. “Relief in Delhi as known India ally is back,” was how the Indian Express headline spun the news. A more accurate headline would have been, ‘Red faces in Delhi as India ally Modi turned his back on is elected US president’.

At a time when most of America’s friends and allies realised it would be hard to maintain business as usual with a president who did not believe in abiding by basic rules of the road, Modi was one of the few world leaders to bet big on Trump. He did so for reasons that were crudely political and narrowly transactional, even if this meant sidelining India’s enlightened national interest in the bargain.

Trumpism sat well with the BJP’s own authoritarian agenda. The worldview Trump espoused provided the BJP space to continue its attacks on Muslims and brush aside concerns about human rights, media freedom and the environment. Trump’s rejection of the Paris accord directly helped Modi pursue the ‘business friendly’ policy he had promised his corporate sponsors back in 2014, the main feature of which is that the state will no longer be bothered about the environmental impact of big projects. And there is no doubt the anti-Muslim immigration and refugee policy the US officially followed over the past four years allowed the BJP government to pursue its own communal initiatives like the Citizenship (Amendment) Act.

A Biden White House may not be looking to cross swords with the Indian government on these issues, or at least not soon, but there is bound to be a shift in global discourse – especially on climate change – that will likely reduce Modi’s room for manoeuvre. 

Xi Jinping’s brinkmanship on the India-China border has served as the cover for Modi to buy into the Trump administration's plans closer military partnership with the US. This is a risky course given the wider complexities of the Eurasian and ‘Indo-Pacific’ region in which Washington’s policies are a source of instability (eg. with Iran and in the Middle East) and tension with big powers like Russia is hard-coded into its strategic outlook. Worse, Modi and his advisers neglected the considerable equities the US corporate sector has with China, which, in the past, has meant flip-flops. George W. Bush went from seeking to school Beijing into becoming a “responsible stakeholder” in Asia to knocking on its doors when the 2008 financial crisis struck. And Obama went from floating the idea of a ‘G2’ with China to an ‘Asian pivot’ aimed at containing China, all in the span of four years. Who knows what shape the next pivot will take?

India’s interests lie in being able to extract what it needs from the US without complicating its relations with Moscow and Beijing – a course correction Manmohan Singh attempted to implement in his final years as prime minister after realising there was a downside to the proximity he had built with Washington. But the Modi government has been oblivious to this challenge.

As president, Biden is not likely to be as confrontationist with China though the underlying strategic competition between the two will remain. And it will be up to Modi now to find his way around the new lay of the land in the region.

Bollywood producers heard

Here is the list of 10 contentions in the 1,069-page suit filed by Bollywood producers against channels like Republic TV and Times Now. It seeks to curb irresponsible, derogatory remarks made against the film industry by news channels, in the course of ‘coverage’ of the ‘Bollywood drugs mafia’. It singles out Republic’s Arnab Goswami and Pradeep Bhandari and Times Now’s Rahul Shivshankar and Navika Kumar for conducting media trials of Bollywood personalities. The production houses have also impleaded social media giants Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Google, stating that defamatory content was published on these platforms, causing irreparable harm. 

Today, the Delhi High Court issued a notice, requiring a written statement and replies to be filed within two weeks. The court has also directed the defendants to ensure that no defamatory content is displayed on their channels or uploaded on social media, in the meanwhile. The matter will be heard next on December 14.

Farmers still unheard

A Punjab BJP member heading a party panel tasked with reaching out to farmers in the state has hit out at his top national leadership for “not listening” to farm law protesters. Surjit Kumar Jyani, a former state minister, said that the leadership at the Centre must meet with farmers. “For God’s sake talk to them. I pray to JP Nadda, Amit Shah-ji and Narendra Modi-ji to listen to what the farmers have to say,” he said. Those three didn’t, but Defence Minister Rajnath Singh and Agriculture Minister Narendra Singh Tomar granted an audience to Jyani on Sunday. The coordination committee head said that representatives of farm organisations called to Delhi for a meeting in October had been “insulted” because Union Agriculture Minister Narendra Singh Tomar did not meet them. 

Meanwhile, despite the pleas of Chief Minister Amarinder Singh and assurances of security, rail traffic through the state remains suspended, starving it of essential commodities. Earlier, Amarinder Singh had protested in Delhi after the president declined to meet him. However, Gen GD Bakshi, resident moustache at Republic TV, will be meeting the president to convey his horror at the treatment meted out to Arnab Goswami. 

Sold, to the highest bidder

Lodha UK, owned by the Mumbai-based Lodha group, sold a penthouse and two apartments at 1, Grosvenor Square in Mayfair to an unnamed buyer for £140 million (about Rs 14 billion). After the three are connected, the new living space of 15,000 square feet will be London’s most expensive apartment. The Tatler called it an “eye-watering” price.

Mangal Prabhat Lodha, Maharashtra legislator and chief of the Mumbai unit of the BJP, is chairman of the Lodha Group. In 2014, the company acquired the property, which had been the American Embassy and the Canadian High Commission earlier. Joseph Kennedy lived there when he was American Ambassador in 1938-40 and built a replica of the Oval Office in the lobby.

Book Extract

Jammu & Kashmir remains in the news, after the events of last August which revoked its special status, removed its statehood, split it into two union territories, and led to the mass imprisonment of mainstream political leaders. It was meant to reverse the trajectory of violence in the Kashmir Valley, which began in 1990. Wajahat Habibullah was an IAS officer of the J&K cadre whose book, My Years with Rajiv: Triumph and Tragedy has recently been released. In this extract, he speaks of a close shave in March 1991 when he was chased by a young militant firing an AK-47 ― and Rajiv Gandhi’s gift of a bulletproof jacket.

My memory flew to the incident of March 1991 when I had been shot at outside the Jami Masjid in Nowhatta, in the heart of downtown Srinagar, where I had travelled to oversee arrangements for the approaching Eid celebrations on April 11. Although I escaped unhurt, Ghulam Hassan Shawl, the deputy superintendent of Srinagar’s traffic police who had accompanied me, and a woman shopper, had been killed in the firing. The attackers were militants from a group called Hizbullah, who were outraged over a report by me that they believed was partial to the army. At the time, the army faced accusations of having committed mass rape of the women of Kunan and Poshpora, twin villages in the border district of Kupwara in northwest Kashmir, lying close to the Line of Control (LOC) that separates Indian-administered Kashmir from the part of Kashmir occupied by Pakistan. I suspect that this attack on me outside the Jami Masjid was an attempt to kidnap me, not to kill, because it was Mushtaq-ul-Islam, then leader of Hizbullah, who held back the attacker from shooting when I was jumping over the wrought-iron fencing of the mosque compound, my trousers slashed from knee to hip, fully exposed to a young man in chase, firing an AK-47.

I got a call from Rajiv that afternoon. He was then leading the Congress party, which was a part of the ruling coalition led by Prime Minister Chandra Shekher. ‘Be careful’, he cautioned. ‘Take care of yourself’. Sometime later, Vincent George, Rajiv’s private secretary of many years, called to tell me to expect a package from Indian Airlines. He was to describe to me later Rajiv’s consternation at being told of the Jami Masjid incident. Next day, I received a call from Srinagar’s Indian Airlines office to tell me that I had received a package from 10 Janpath, Rajiv’s home in New Delhi, and asking me where I would like it delivered. It was a large package, and when I opened it, I found a bulletproof vest. Years later, when I asked Sonia whether it was an old vest, she informed me that no, it was his only bulletproof vest that he had been advised to wear always, but rarely did. When I insisted that I return it to her, Sonia refused, saying that Rajiv had wanted me to have it and I must keep it.

It remains ― and ever will ― a treasured possession.

Extracted with the author’s permission from ‘My Years with Rajiv: Triumph and Tragedy’,Westland Books, 356 pages, Rs 599.


In Bihar, the buck is passed 

With results of the exit poll from Bihar pointing to the inglorious exit of the NDA government, some form of instructions must have gone to shield the top two of the BJP ― one of whom did not campaign in Bihar even after announcing that he would ― and instead pin all the blame on an ‘unpopular’ Nitish Kumar and BJP President JP Nadda, who was ‘under pressure’. What were those two dozen-odd election rallies by Modi about, then, where he invoked the Ram temple, Kashmir, Pakistan and Jungle Raj? The buck, for an electoral loss, clearly doesn’t stop at the top, if it involves Modi.

Biden his time

The Vice President-elect of the US has a celebrated Tamil Nadu connection. But Joe Biden, too, has ancestral links with the state, via the East India Company. Some fascinating details on his ancestors and India have emerged.  And the family of Gopalan Balachandran, Kamala Harris’s maternal uncle, will be flying down to the US to attend the swearing-in ceremony. Her mother’s sister is equally thrilled and proud.

Among plans for engagement with the new US administration, the Modi government is considering an invitation to Kamala Harris to visit India soon after she takes the oath as Vice President on January 20. 

Prime Number: 29%
The drop in sales of Indian Made Foreign Liquor across India in the first half of the fiscal year, according to the liquor industry, which has attributed it to a complete ban on sale during lockdown, followed by the imposition of a steep coronavirus tax in some states. The first quarter (April-June) of the current fiscal saw sales plummeting by 49%, while in the second quarter sales were down by 9%.

Four years of Demon

Yesterday marked the fourth anniversary of demonetisation, which sent the Indian economy into a tailspin, leaving it more vulnerable to acts of Covid-19. On Sunday, PM Modi said it was very beneficial to “national progress”. India’s annual economic growth rate slipped from 8.25% in 2016 to 5.02% in 2019, according to the World Bank. The cash in hand is highest ever. It declined by 23.9% in the first quarter of this financial year. Congress leader Rahul Gandhi panned the decision as an assault on the economy to help crony capitalists. He again criticised the Modi government for India trailing Bangladesh on vital parameters due to demonetisation, the botched implementation of GST and new farm laws which hurt farmers.

Deep Dive

The milk miracle of 1995, when many Indians believed that Ganesha idols were drinking milk, was a key episode in modern India’s protracted tangling of faith and reason. Long before some of India’s best-known rationalists began to be murdered, it portended how religion and superstition would be instrumentalised in the new millennium. Sukhada Tatke delves into the significance of that moment in modern India’s history.

Op-Eds you don’t want to miss

Listen up

Space historian Asif Siddiqi talks about the early days of India’s space activities and the role of Vikram Sarabhai, and shares deep insights about the foundations of the Indian space programme.

Watch Out

Punjab in a ‘Hindu nation’ 

Journalist Hartosh Singh Bal speaks on what the current politics of the country means for Punjab, what the past tells us and the problems that the present poses for a state largely at odds with the national mood.

From Nevada to Nawada

The Bihar election results will be out tomorrow, and this meme makes sense of all the nonsense. 

That’s it for today. We’ll be back with you tomorrow, on a device near you. If The India Cable was forwarded to you by a friend (perhaps a common friend!) book your own copy by SUBSCRIBING HERE.